The Slow Cancellation of…
Sorry, What Were We Talking About?

I was sorry to miss this recent talk from Benjamin Noys. I only heard about it after the fact. Here’s the abstract:

In the face of what Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Mark Fisher have called ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ contemporary theory has often responded by stressing the utopian possibilities of ‘inventing the future’ or turning to a fundamental past ontological rift or wounding. The crisis of the future, I wish to suggest, is in fact a crisis of the imagination of the present. In contrast to the invention of the future, or the turn to the past, I argue we need to de-invent the future and return to the present as a fraught and fragmentary site of struggle.

You shouldn’t judge a talk by its abstract alone, obviously. They can be such hastily written things. But I do have a lot of questions…

I tweeted about this the other day and it seems that my suspicions were somewhat confirmed by others who attended. This makes me feel like it might be worth airing these questions in a more lucid form than a few bewildered tweets, not only because Noys’ approach seems bizarre to me, but because it seems indicative of what’s gone wrong with the accelerationist blogosphere over the last few years. It suggests that many have been struck by a certain amnesia.

I’m mostly curious to know how Noys’ argument actually differs from Fisher’s. After all, Fisher was better attuned to the time-signature of the present than anyone.

Though Noys apparently took aim at Fisher’s Nietzschean pessimism in this talk, Fisher’s critiques from Capitalist Realism onwards — and his notion of “reflexive impotence” in particular — were a diagnosis of a new strand of left melancholia, emerging from the Long Nineties and flaring up around the Occupy movement — a task explicitly grounded in the present. As Wendy Brown writes of this strange pathology:

“Left melancholia” is [Walter] Benjamin’s unambivalent epithet for the revolutionary hack who is, finally, not serious about political change, who is more attached to a particular political analysis or ideal — even to the failure of that ideal — than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present. In the context of Benjamin’s enigmatic insistence on the political value of a dialectical historical grasp of the time of the Now, Left melancholia represents not only a refusal to come to terms with the particular character of the present, that is, a failure to understand history in terms other than “empty time” or “progress.” It signifies as well a certain narcissism with regard to one’s past political attachments and identity that exceeds any contemporary investment in political mobilization, alliance, or transformation.

Mark referenced this essay a few times, including in his final lectures. But the left’s reluctance or inability to deal with the present was something he critiqued constantly. (It was also his argument in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, where he swaps the death rattle of New Labour for Twitter’s tendency to call visible socialists “sell-outs” in 2013.)

This makes Noys’ argument sound particularly weak, even self-defeating. To talk of left-Nietzscheanism ends up sounding more like an indirect flex that he’s read Losurdo and nothing more. I can’t think of any other reason why someone might think critiques of left-Nietzscheanism and the mid-2000s pessimism of Mark Fisher have any bearing whatsoever on our present moment.

What’s worse is the other side of Noys’ critique is similarly misrepresented here. Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s Inventing the Future wasn’t detached from the present either. It was a speculative politics, yes, but speculation begins in the present; it intervenes in the present. That was Williams’ original argument when he first made moves against the blogosphere’s hauntological trend, insisting that we sod all that “good postmodernism” rubbish and actually interrogate “in our current time… those regions which appear, from the in-situational point of view, to be marginal, and properly undecideable.”

What is that if not a demarcation of the present as a “fraught and fragmentary site of struggle”?

It’s as if the first blogosphere never happened; as if Mark Fisher, Alex Williams and Steven Shaviro never wrote all they did about the contingencies of now. To make matters worse, Noys was there for all this. It was Williams’ denouncement of hauntology, and his insistence on the present as a site of struggle, that Noys first (perjoratively) named “accelerationism”. But accelerationism, for the likes of Williams and Fisher, was always, fundamentally, concerned with “the new”, how it appears or fails to appear, how new forms of political subjectivity can be “invented” or “discovered” after the end of history; after capitalism’s claim to have won out overall. It is in this way that accelerationism begins from the present and moves outwards, as all speculative philosophies do. Indeed, Alfred North Whitehead, so central to the accelerationist writings of Steven Shaviro, argues that speculative philosophy is essentially a meeting point for temporalised logics: “Whenever we attempt to express the matter of immediate experience, we find that its understanding leads us beyond itself, to its contemporaries, to its past, to its future, and to the universals in terms of which its definitiveness is exhibited.”

Maybe Noys addressed all this in his talk… Maybe he’s just forgotten all of his previous entanglements… But if that is the case, then the present is being misused as a rug, under which we can conveniently forget the past once witnessed and the future once promised. Noys’ talk doesn’t sound like an argument for the “present” but a “presenteeism”. It is showing up and achieving nothing.

We might note that forgetting is also a central tool of capitalism realism. Fisher always suggested that “the slow cancellation of the future” took place in memory, first and foremost. The future is cancelled as old visions are reified as novelties of the past. Representations are decoupled from transhistorical gestures towards emancipation. Structures of feeling are diminished, abstracted, made distant. The present becomes a postmodern soup where only the past is eternally and destructively present.

There’s a reason why the final albums of arch-hauntologist The Caretaker attempted to sonically document an experience of dementia or, as on his earlier works, retrograde amnesia. Capitalism’s drive to make us forget is a demented infringement upon our cognitive potentials in the present.

Fisher’s Acid Communism, again, hoped to intervene in this demented space. As if channeling the psychedelic drawn-from-memory still lives of Ivan Seal, he found a productive tension in the cognitive dichotomy of remembering and hallucinating — two closely related processes that both take place in the present. This gives form to that long-considered tension between hauntology and accelerationism. The dialectic between them attempts to illuminate capitalist dreamwork and allow us to regain some agency in the here and now. This isn’t a new tension. It was central throughout the first blogosphere, dramatised in the imagined dialogues between Deleuze and Badiou.

With all of this in mind, it seems strange that Noys would offer up, as a critical intervention, a summary of his opponents’ positions from over decade ago. It makes it seem less like a timely critique than a symptom of what Fisher and others were describing way back when… For Noys to demonstrate this as part of a series of talks called “Theory in Crisis” only makes things stranger. It starts to feel more demonstrative than diagnostic… How can we take someone’s claim to the present seriously when they themselves seem so far removed from it?

But again, it’s just an abstract. I’ll happily eat my words if a recording appears, but I have a strong feeling I won’t have to…

Update: Noys talk is now online — a follow-up here.


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